TRAIL: cadence and the brain

This article takes about 10 minutes of quiet time, hope you enjoy it!

As an athlete perseverance, determination and hard work invades our magical minds so we can push ourselves to new level of performances season after season. In sports like alpine & cross country skiing, figure skating, and biathlon for example, the skills required to perform are beyond just working on improving physical fitness – technicality is a priority. Repeating drills non-stop to perfect skills is not always fun or easy, it can actually be very difficult mentally, but obviously the results can be massive. One reason some athletes perform better then others, it’s not just pure talent but hard work.

All sport have technical elements, even trail running.

Train, practice and repeat
That rule applies to all athletes, but trail runners are good at training and repeating but seem to forget to practice!

What do we need to practice? Many things… but first and foremost cadence, which is the focus of this article.

The number one skill a runner should focus on, no matter the distance, is cadence (leg turnover rate). Faster cadence needs practice to become second nature.
If you have a slow cadence, 170 spm (step per minute) or less, at first increasing cadence might feel challenging with the by product of a higher heart rate and early onset muscle fatigue. Some runners tell me ‘it feels unnaturel’ when they first try- it’s simply normal since your brain is not accustom to it!

A good cadence is the most technical aspect of running, by improving your cadence you become more efficient and with time, faster, you will run quicker between point A and B.
A quick cadence, 180 or more step per minute, the feet touch the ground more often in a minute.
An average cadence is around 174-176
A slow cadence, 170 or less, your stride is longer (space between the front and back leg) and the feet touch the ground less time in a minute.

With a slow cadence the runner spends more time on the ground, knee & hip flexion is greater and so are the ground forces up the kinetic chain, the number one reason for so many knee pathology among trail runners.

Training at a quick cadence makes you faster
Training at a slow cadence limits your potential to be faster

Benefits of a quick cadence
Less time on the ground = less muscle energy demand (not to confuse with speed, faster speed demand greater muscle energy)
Minimize mechanical stress on the joints and soft tissues since you are moving forward  (slow cadence with a long stride directs the runner in a vertical motion of up and down and increases ground force.)
Greater economy (your legs will take you further with less fuel)
Greater leg oxygenation
Neuromuscular efficiency (mind over muscle)
Increases leg muscle strength (especially lower leg)

With a high cadence no matter if you are a forefoot or heel striker your foot lands just in front of the center of gravity, the perfect zone for the lowest force at impact and efficiency of mechanics.

Beside the fact that a quick cadence is the key element to running efficiency it is also one of the best way in preventing injuries, since it reduces mechanical stress & forces to the foot, knee, hip and spine.

Other benefits on technical terrain and on slippery grounds in the winter:
Better coordination, balance, anticipation for good foot placement, dissociation, agility and stability!

Winter is an opportunity to fine-tune your cadence
Winter should be a period of low volume and low intensity training (per exception if you have a major race planed in the spring), a time and opportunity to fine-tune your stride and cadence, comes spring you will be technically more efficient, injury free (hopefully), light on your feet and rested to now focus on building volume.

Winter months focus on frequent runs (3-4x per week average depending of your fitness level), concentrate on light feet, quick legs, relaxing your stride (don’t force it), letting go of tension in the shoulders and back, dropping your hands to your hips and driving the elbows back!

Come spring time its very important to maintain a high cadence as you increase your volume for your favorite distance. Keep practicing and keep track of your cadence throughout the season two to three times a week.

How to count your cadence
Run flat for 20 minutes at your comfortable training pace.
Count one leg each time you hit the ground for 1 minute and multiply by two.
Repeat it 5 minutes before you end your run, you will get and average of your cadence.

The goal is to be around or above 176 spm, if you are, you need to make sure you maintain that same cadence for your longer runs and also when you run uphill and downhill (which you count the same way). No matter your speed or the terrain, the legs need to move quickly. Think of moving smoothly and forward, like an agile fox!

Of course there is exceptions ; climbing a steep 1500m ascent or when severe fatigue kicks in an ultra for example, but in general the key is to keep it quick for as long as possible, so you have to train that way!

If you are lower then 170, focus for the next month on touching the ground more often for the same speed. Even if you only increase 2 steps per minute each week you will eventually reach an efficient cadence.

How to practice cadence
Try to maintain a quick cadence for a few minutes at a time, go back to your normal cadence and repeat, every 3 minutes for 1 minute, and then every 2 minute for 2 minutes… for a period of 15-20 minutes for example. Adjust and alternate until you feel comfortable maintaining a quicker cadence. An other great drills is to cut your workout in two and you run at a faster cadence for your second part of your run – you gain lots of mental and physical strength from it!

This winter practice on flat, rolling terrain and small hills. Coming spring time focus on longer and steeper climbs both for uphill and downhill running, take it week to week, improving cadence for all terrain is like  building fitness, it comes with practice and patience.

It’s not easy at first, it demands concentration, focus and repetition.
Its only by repeating a quick leg turnover that your brain will adapt, you might want to give up at first, hate the drill or simply feel early-on fatigue, but don’t give up, the gains are massive!

It takes a good 3-4 weeks for a practice to become a habit and then about 2 months to become natural.

Watch a marathon, 90% of the elites and not just the Kenyans have unbelievable cadence from start to finish, why is that? They work hard at it, it’s natural for some and not for others.

Some tips when you start working on your cadence: for all fitness level!
Jumping rope or simulating, daily for 3-5 minutes
Before each runs, warm-up simulating quick boxing moves side to side with your feet
Fast spinning motion of the legs in the air while laying on your back
When running, visualize the ground on fire and try not to hear your feet touch the ground

The mind directs the brain and the brain directs muscles
When you focus on quick cadence the brains tells your muscles to contract quicker.
When you start feeling tired (it’s not a reality just harder work) the brain tells your legs to slow down.
When you practice something new, it’s always more challenging at first and it demands greater effort.

Working on skills and perfecting technique will also challenge the brain.

Don’t get fooled by perceive effort!
Perceive effort (how you feel) is all about the mind telling the brain you think you are tired and the brain communicates to the muscles to slow down.
Most of the time when you slow down it’s not because you are super tired or you can’t run anymore, you probably have a lot of fitness left but it’s the perceive exertion your mind communicates to the brain from either lack of focus, unmotivated, mentally tired for example. A slow cadence can also cause early perceived effort since it fatigues the legs quicker than a quicker cadence-  greater energy cost!

By working on a quicker cadence, at first your perceive effort (exertion) might kick in, but with time your legs will gain greater fitness. Your brain will also gain on fitness, so you will have greater resistance to fatigue.

Unfortunately cadence is more then often neglected in trail running, from runners to coaches, I don’t blame anyone it’s just a lack of knowledge and experience. We just need to look more at the benefits and start using it as a prime tool to be fitter trail runners for the distance and the terrain. Cyclists are sure smarter, they use all their gears depending of the terrain but one thing stays the same ; quick rpm’s – cadence!!!

You run track, roads or trails work on your cadence!
Track and middle distance runners usually translate into great trail runners since they have very strong legs (!) and usually higher then normal perceive effort, why?
They work hard on running techniques (e.g. cadence, stride…), repeating drills daily, and they run fast and often! Their brain is accustom to being challenged – they have brain that can endure the hard work (some call it enduring the pain!).

You can grow as an endurance athlete by changing your relationship with perceived effort, doing so by working on skills and drills, like cadence, you will build mental strength and fitness at the same time.

A quicker cadence needs time for adaptation, legs move quicker but not necessarily faster, we want a quick cadence for all terrain with difference speed, slow or fast. To achieve this, the runner needs to train, practice and repeat.

ACL injuries versus cadence
There is a high percentage of runners that are skiers who have suffered an ACL injury. When back to running its extremely important to focus on high cadence.
With a quicker cadence your stride is shorten which reduce the forces (either compression, torsion or shear forces) on the knee joint. It’s likely the injury itself (ACL) alters the distribution of forces within the knee, changes the composition of the joint cartilage, decrease joint lubrication, and increases the chance of joint deterioration (osteoporosis). Simply shortening the step length by 5% (or increasing your cadence to minimum 174 spm), decreased significantly the forces and mechanical stress on the knee joint and the surrounding soft tissues.

A good story…
A few years back I received a call from a trail runner, he had just finished in the top 5 at UTMB (despite much of the favorites not finishing!) and had podium on all of his races that season. He wanted to get faster and ask if I could have a look at his training program (self-coached), I suggested to go for a run together. Within the first few minutes on the trail I knew that he could run much faster- he had a very slow cadence and a long stride. He spend the following fall and winter working on specific drills to increase is cadence to 180.
Last season he was running and average 1 km faster per hour and also by modifying his training program with less volume and adding drills he gained speed for the climbs – he became stronger and faster adjusting only three very important key elements; cadence, less volume and adding dryland drills.
Important: I have the same stories for the new comers to trail running, we can all benefit from a quick cadence.

My story with cadence
I was 24 years old and registered to race 195km trail event in Kenya. I had a few years experience in endurance racing but zero experience for such a distance at altitude. I really wanted to do well, too far to travel not to! I took my knowledge and experience from my years racing track and studying exercise physiology and put in months of high cadence and intensity training on flat and uphill to maximize leg oxygenation and at building leg strength, it was hard, very hard. My legs felt like vomiting at the end of many workouts. But It was by far my best race ever for the mental & physical experience, I ran fast for a very long time for the simple reason that I trained right at improving one skill, my cadence. I have never stop training my cadence since.

Some of the best coaches appeared in the 1910-30‘s, like Sam Mussabini, runners had unbelievable training regimen focusing on drills we still use, for cadence and muscle elasticity. The coaches were not runners, they were innovative, creative with training and they understood the magic of the sport ; to be relaxed, quick, effortless and to give 200% of your mind with each stride.

Skill training is all about being in the present moment, when working on your cadence in the coming months, don’t use a metronome or fast beat music, focus on being smooth, light, don’t fight the trail, use your mind and your brain, the muscle will follow.
By working on your cadence, you will improve your mental endurance (brain fitness), you will be able to run at greater speed (increasing your base speed & fitness), for longer (increasing endurance for the distance), without feeling the onset of fatigue as quickly.

Perceive effort is the number one limiting factor for an athlete, not physical fitness.
If you are able to engage your mind to increase the amount of effort you are able to give, you enhance your mental and physical capacity for greater performance.

The brain has a mind of it’s own!

Enjoy your winter runs… and your new cadence!

You will find more detailed info on cadence, perceived effort, trail dryland exercises and much more in my new book;
Trail, les clés pour performer sans se blesser, édition Glénat
Which will be out February 19th, 2020
The Chamonix book launch will be Friday February 21st at 19h30 at the Patagonia store, buffet and apéro will be served, join us for a fun evening!

Thanks for reading… Chloë
Follow me on Instagram: @chloelanthier / @chx_mountainenduranceacademy

Monthly educational articles for the passionate mountain athlete.


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